Breakthrough Moments

blog Apr 25, 2024

By Matt Green

Have you ever noticed how, for some people, success appears to happen overnight? An unknown author appears on the scene with a blockbuster book. A business idea sprouts out of nowhere, and the company that developed it announces its IPO shortly after. A church plant goes from small group to a megachurch in a few short years.

However, these public successes we consider breakthroughs are often merely one more step in a series of private disciplines.

In his provocative book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear offers several examples of breakthrough moments in nature. A zero-degree chunk of ice warms one degree at a time with no visible change. Then, at the moment it reaches 32 degrees, it changes from a solid to a liquid and becomes water. Bamboo grows a root system underground for the first five years of its life, with little apparent progress above ground. Then, in a matter of six weeks, it can shoot 90 feet into the air.

In the same way, personal and corporate breakthroughs are simply the result of a series of smaller, more easily attainable actions carried out consistently over time. In other words, a system. “If you want better results,” Clear writes, “then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.”

History and scripture are replete with examples of leaders who leveraged this principle, even if they were not attuned to the modern concept of goal setting. This truth is captured in Eugene Peterson’s definition of discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction” (a phrase he adopted from Frederick Nietzsche).

For the Christian, there is a conviction that such labor is not in vain because we do not work alone. Small acts of human faithfulness are enabled and accompanied by divine involvement. As Paul writes, we are “co-workers” with God in His kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 3:9). As it relates to our salvation, Paul places the human and divine work side by side, as we “work out [y]our salvation with fear and trembling,” while God works in us “to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (see Philippians 2:12-13).

We all want our progress to be linear, to see a direct correlation between our short-term labors and our long-term success. But life tends to be much more unpredictable. In the example of ice melting, was it the last degree that accomplished the transformation? No, it was the accumulated energy over time that culminated in a change of state from solid to liquid.

Our individual acts of faithfulness may not appear to be making an impact, and success may seem elusive. But the cumulative effect will bear fruit—whether in this world or the next. Why? Because we’re not working alone.

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